[EAS]No More Teams

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Mar 31 20:28:09 EST 2002

Subject:   No More Teams

[Comments follow further below.  --PJK]
(from INNOVATION, 20 March 2002)

So writes Michael Schrage in his book of the same name. In a recent 
interview, he elaborated on his theory. "There's this view -- or,
heaven  forbid, paradigm -- that if you want to produce successful
prototypes or  models, you need to create an innovative team."
According to this view,  innovative teams create innovative
prototypes. That's wrong, says Schrage.  "If you look at how
prototypes are really created whether they're Microsoft  software or
General Motors cars or Sony electronics -- what happens, more  often
than not, is that innovative prototypes generate innovative teams." 
Schrage insists innovative teams don't create innovative prototypes.
Rather, it's the other way around. "What really happens," he says,
"is that  innovative people build a model of something and then they
show it to  others they think might have an interesting comment. A
team forms. The  prototype generates a community of interest. So the
whole design philosophy  behind 'the team' is flawed. The issue
isn't using a team to build a  prototype; the issue is how do you
use the prototype, how do you use the  model, how do you use the
shared space to build the right team." (Knowledge  Inc.)

With the Winter Olympics over and the baseball season beginning,
sports  metaphors in business will be sprouting like daffodils. So
this is an  opportune moment to remember what sports can really
teach us about teams  and winning. After all, the sports world is
full of valuable insights for  business people, although some may
not really want to face them. First,  remember that teams have
stars. Jack Welch and other successful managers  believe top
performers should get paid a whole lot more than mediocre ones.  But
plenty of managers find this idea unbearable. "It disrupts the
team," complained one. "How can you have a guy working next to
another guy  who's making 50% more?" But the truth is that every
team has stars, and  everyone on the team knows who they are. A lot
of corporate teams try to  suppress that reality -- winning athletic
teams embrace it. Second, a lot  of companies claim to be
world-class, but most people don't grasp what that  really means. At
the recent Winter Olympics the difference between gold  medal and no
medal was often less than 2%. A lot of managers claim their 
companies will "bring home the gold" this year. A terrific goal, but
just  remember that many excellent Olympic athletes were 98% as good
as the very  best -- and brought home nothing. By all means try to
bring home the  gold  just don't delude yourself about how hard it
is. (Fortune 18 Mar 2002)


The reality of engineering teams has not lived up to their energetic
promotion as educational policy by business to academia. Business
has long been suffused with metaphors of sports (and war). Since we
know that metaphor is not just a matter of language but a rather
direct reflection of a person's or organization's conceptual
structure, I do not doubt the sincerity of business in promoting

Michael Schrage, also author of "Serious Play: How the World's Best
Companies Simulate to Innovate" (Harvard Business School Press,
1999) comments on the relationship between innovation and team work.
And I have previously expressed the view, in
<http://www.yale.edu/engineering/eng-info/msg00807.html> that
teamwork can be antithetical to achieving simple design solutions.
Examples abound--for the moment just look at the visual clutter of
the operating system features on your screen, each the "thumbprint"
of a team member, and the tiny remnant of a window within which you
are reading this.

It has been unclear to me why the team concept should find such
ready resonance in academia, which is for the most part an
environment of staunch individualists who got tenure that way. As
such, their relationship to technology should emphasize its personal
leverage. Now that the enhancement by technology of physical
capability, i.e. of dexterity and brawn is thoroughly established
through industrial robotics, next ought to come the enhancement of
'brain' in the form of tools that allow the _individual_ intellect
to handle a maximum of complexity. (And I don't mean online shopping
and making your own airline reservations.) Once the enhanced
individual reaches the limits of complex problem solving, we should
return to Adam Smith and such precepts of collaborative division of
labor as now apply in a more highly technological setting.

The evolution of tools, of computer-facilitated enablement, doesn't
quite seem to be going that way. We spend ever more of our time
doing what our 'secretaries' used to do, because we are now
electronically 'empowered' to do so. And when things get complex, as
they often do because we have let them get that way, we propose
huddling together in teams (or committees).

The term "team" should be given a rest, much as a rest was enforced on
"artificial intelligence" when it couldn't live up to its early
encompassing promises and found itself a unifier in name alone. Still,
many advances that early AI enthusiasts would have considered too
mundane are now the stuff of solid progress, e.g. in language
translation, neural networks and decision-making software. (see
Similarly, many advances have been made in the methodologies of
collaboration under the "team" banner, but those details gets drowned
out by the "team" cheer-leading.

I propose that we drop the reflexive emphasis on "teams" for a while
and concentrate on the real technical and sociological details of how
and when collaboration works best, and how our tools and procedures
can be optimized to serve that process. Toward that goal, we should
not be afraid to _first_ maximize the scope of the _individual_ within
the larger collaborative context. So, not so much "no more teams," but
more constructive distinctions about the terms of collaboration.

And when we feel unfairly treated or lonely, and want to be democratic
and gregarious, there are better responses than the tiresome appeal to

   --Peter Kindlmann

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